Posts Tagged ‘Aircraft’

A Real ‘Steampunk’ Toy: Pre-World War I Clockwork Monorail Train

August 13, 2017

A little while ago I put up a series of posts about real, 19th century inventions, which now seem like the weird machines of Steampunk Science Fiction. This is a subgenre, which imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had invented spacecraft, time travel, interdimensional travel and other elements of Science Fiction, or had completed and fully developed real inventions like Babbage’s mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, steam carriages and dirigible aircraft, like that flown by the French aviator Giffard in 1854.

One of these real Steampunk inventions was the monorail. A steam-driven monorail system was designed by an American inventor and entrepreneur. This astonished me, as I always associated the monorail train with the technological optimism of the 1960s and ’70s. It was an invention for a technological age that never happened. After writing the article, a reader posted a comment on the piece kindly pointing out that a steam monorail system had been built in Eire. the track and its train have been restored, and are now a tourist attraction. The commenter included a link, and if you go to that website, you’ll see the train in question. It is very definitely an Irish train, as its been decorated very patriotically in green.

This hasn’t been the only example of such trains I’ve found. They even existed as miniature toys. Looking through the book Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work by Athelstan and Kathleen Silhaus, with photos by Nelson McClary (New York: Crown Publishers 1989) I came across the illustration below of a toy monorail train, stabilized with a gyroscope and powered by a single wheel. It was produced by the Ely Cycle Co., of Britain, in 1912. It was first patented in Britain in 1908, and then in Germany in 1911, where it was also manufactured by Suskind. The text notes that it was stabilized by a gyroscope long before Sperry used it in aircraft and ocean liners.

The use of a single wheel is also like the various Science Fictional vehicles that similarly have only one of these, like the monocycles in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat. This toy, and others like it, show a whole world of Victorian and Edwardian invention that seemed to anticipate a technological future that never quite happened, as well as the immense inventiveness of the manufacturers.


Antique Technology in the Science Museum: Samuel Moreland’s Calculator

July 15, 2017

Looking through one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a copy of the Souvenir Guide to the Science Museum. This was a photographic guide to some of the Museum’s exhibits, which include Islamic alchemical apparatus, an iron lung, the wright flier, and a BBC television receiver from the 1920s among many, many others.

One of the early pieces of scientific equipment is a mechanical calculator constructed by the English inventor, Samuel Morland in 1666.

The guide explains

French mathematician Blaise Pascal made the first working mechanical calculator in 1642, and several mathematicians and inventors attempted to emulate or improve on his design. Morland’s device, shown here, could add, multiply and divide; the wheels were operated by a steel pin that was stored in the slot in the machine’s lid. Morland also invented a megaphone – or, as he called it, the ‘Tuba Stentorphonica’ and a water pump for spraying water to put out fires. (p. 40).

The Science Museum is, of course, also the home of the most famous of the historic calculating machines, Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, which has been hailed as the world’s first programmable computer. It was also the central theme of Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s Steampunk SF novel, The Difference Engine, which imagined an alternative 19th century, in which the Difference Engine had been built and ushered in a steam-powered information age in a Britain governed by a scientific elite under the premiership of Lord Byron.

It seems to me that Babbage’s machine was the culmination of a long process of invention, where mathematicians, scientists and engineers designed and constructed mechanical calculating machines. Pascal’s was the first of these. But I think the ultimate idea actually goes back to the 14th century Spanish poet and mystic, Ramon Llul. Alan Chapman, the astronomer and Christian apologist, says in his book, Slaying the Dragons, that Llul attempted to show that God’s existence was encoded in the structure of mathematics itself, and that this inspired a number of later writers to design calculating machines.

Apollo Astronaut Michael Collins on Sexism, the Fragile Earth and Banning Guns in Space Colonies

July 13, 2017

Last week I put up a post about a clip of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, pulling faces at a rambling, incoherent speech made by Donald Trump. Trump was signing into law an act affirming America’s commitment to the space programme. His speech about it was less than inspiring however, and Aldrin, who not only went to the Moon himself, but has also been a staunch supporter of opening the High Frontier up to ordinary women and men, was very definitely less than impressed.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently was Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story, written by the third member of the Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins. Collins was the pilot, who flew the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, and then waited in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin made their historic landing, before flying back with them on the return journey to Earth. The book is Collin’s account of how he came to be astronaut. Determined to be a pilot after being allowed to hold the joystick of a passenger aircraft on which he and his family were travelling as a child, he joined the USAF and became a test pilot. He then moved on to join NASA’s space programme. He describes the rigorous training required, and his first flight into space with John Young in Gemini 10 in July 1966. He also explains how he came, reluctantly, to leave the astronaut programme for a variety of reasons, not least was the way it was stopping him from spending time with his family. And in his final chapter he, like Aldrin, looks forward to the future spread of humanity throughout the Solar system and beyond, with humans going to Mars and then Titan, a moon of Saturn, which may hold the key to the origin of life.

This isn’t an explicitly political book. Nevertheless, Collins does comment on specific issues as they affect the racial and gender composition of the astronaut programme, his perspective on the importance of the environment and why he believes guns would be banned by the inhabitants of a space colony. These are all issues which Trump, his supporters and donors in the gun manufacturers and lobbyists would strongly oppose.

In the passage where he discusses how he and the other astronauts became part of a panel, whose job was to select a fresh batch of astronauts, makes a point of explaining why only white men were selected. He then goes on to comment that although this was what was done at the time, he believes and hope that this will change, and that Blacks and women are just as capable of flying air- and spacecraft equally well. He points out that the highly technological nature of modern aircraft means that there is absolutely no biological obstacle to women piloting such high performance machines. He writes

Note that I have said “he”, because there were no women in the group, nor where there any blacks. In thinking about that, it seems to me that there were plenty of women and blacks who could get the highest marks in categories 1 and 4 [their intelligence and how badly they wanted to be astronauts], but in 1966 categories 2 and 3 [education and experience] tended to rule them out. There simply did not seem to be aeronautical engineers and experienced test pilots, who were black or women. I think, and hope, that will change in the future. Flying a modern jet aircraft does not require a great deal of strength, for one thing. Hydraulic flight controls, like power steering in a car, prefer a light touch, and women should do as good a job as men. Obviously, an airplane has now way of telling the skin colour of the person flying it. (pp. 72-3. My comments in brackets).

He describes how looking at the Earth from space made him aware how fragile it was, and of the importance of preserving the environment.

I will never forget how beautiful the earth appears from a great distance, floating silently and serenely like a blue and white marble against the pure black of space. For some reason, the tiny earth also appears very fragile, as if a giant hand could suddenly reach out and crush it. Of course, there is no one giant hand, but there are billions of smaller hands on earth, working furiously to change their home. Some of the changes being made are good, and others bad. For example, we are learning more efficient ways of catching fish, and that is good because it means more people can be fed from the oceans. If, on the other hand, these new methods result in the disappearance of species, such as whales, then that is bad. The automobile gives us great mobility, but pollutes our atmosphere. We cook cleanly and efficiently with natural gas, but we are running short of it. Newspapers and books spread knowledge, but require that trees be chopped down. It seems that nearly every advance in our civilisation has some undesirable side effects, Today’s young people are going to have to acquire the wisdom to see that future changes help our planet, not hurt it, so that it truly becomes the beautiful, clean, blue and white pea it seems to be when viewed from the moon. The earth truly is fragile, in the sense that its surface can easily shift from blue and white to black and brown. Is the riverbank a delightful spot to watch diving ducks, or is it lifeless greasy muck littered with bottles and tires? More people should be privileged to fly in space and get the chance to see the fragile earth as it appears from afar.
(p. 146).

Further on in the book, he states that future orbiting settlements would get their power from solar energy, as this would not only be abundant and free, but also clean, unlike coal. (pp. 150-1).

He also remarks on the way the Apollo missions differed from previous historic expeditions in that the explorers were unarmed, and suggests that the future inhabitants of a space colony at one of the libration points where the gravity of the Earth and Moon cancel each other out, and so named ‘Libra’, would similarly see no need for carrying weapons.

Apollo set a precedent for the future in another interesting way. It was probably the only major human expedition in which no weapons were carried. In similar fashion, no weapons would be permitted on Libra and Librans simply would not be able to understand why earth people continued to shoot one another. On Libra, if people felt hostile, they would be urged to put their energies into athletic contests or other competitive events, or simply to let off steam by going flying.

He then describes how the lower or zero gravity in the colony would allow people to fly aircraft power by their own muscles. (pp. 154-5).

Most of this is, or at least should be, non-controversial. Scientists have been warning us about the immense danger to our ecosystem, and the horrific decline in its natural wildlife as more and more habitats are destroyed, and an increasing number of species threatened with extinction, since the early ’70s. Among those warning of the ecological perils to the planet was the inspirational astronomer and NASA scientist, Carl Sagan. And indeed, one of the most powerful images that stimulated ecological awareness and the burgeoning Green movement was that picture of the Earth as a fragile, blue orb hanging in the blackness of space taken from the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Way back in the mid-1990s the Beeb’s popular science programme, Horizon, devoted an edition, ‘Icon Earth’, to how this photo had influenced politics and culture.

The picture hasn’t just made more people aware of the urgent need to protect the environment. Some of the astronauts have spoken about how it brought home to them how artificial racial and national divisions are. They point out that there are now boundaries visible from space. Helen Sharman, the British astronaut who flew with the Russians to Mir in the 1980s, states in her book about her voyage that space helps to foster international understanding and cooperation. She observes that astronauts are the least nationalistic people.

As for guns, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that shooting in the enclosed environment of space habitat could have truly disastrous consequences through the damage it could do to the machinery and fabric of the colony itself, and their ability to preserve human life in the harsh environment of space. A bullet through the outer skin of a spacecraft could lead the escape of its air, causing those within to die of suffocation and decompression.

Trump, however, is supported by the racist and misogynist Alt Right, who would like to roll back Black Civil Rights and women’s social and political gains since the 1960s, while the Republican party as a whole is generously funded by the NRA and the gun lobby, and the Koch brothers and other industrial magnates. The Koch brothers own much of the American petrochemical industry, and so, like many of the other multimillionaire businessmen, are very strongly opposed to any kind of environmental protection. The Kochs in particular are responsible for closing down awkward parts of the American meteorology and environmental science laboratories when they dare to issue warnings about the damage industry is causing to the country’s natural beauty and wildlife. They are then replaced with other institutions, also funded by the Kochs and those like them, which then conveniently deny the reality of climate change. The Republicans and their supporters in industry have also set up fake ‘astroturf’ Green movements, like Wise Use, which seek to undermine the genuine environmental movement.

Given the way the experience of looking back at our beautiful planet from space has transformed political, social and cultural perspectives all across the world, you can understand why some astronauts just might feel they have excellent reasons for pulling faces at their president.

Hillary Clinton Sold Arms to Saudi War Criminals

February 27, 2016

Yesterday, Mike over at Vox Political put up a piece about Cameron’s visit to a BAE aircraft factory in Warton, Lancashire, in which he boasted about selling ‘brilliant things’ to Saudi Arabia. He felt this was a matter of pride. Mike pointed out that in fact it was a disgrace, as these weapons are being used by the Saudis to kill civilians in what the United Nations has described as possible war crimes.

In this piece from Secular Talk, Kyle Kulinski similarly marks out Hillary Clinton for criticism and opprobrium. Clinton, as Secretary of State, approved a $29.4 billion weapons deal to Saudi Arabia, which supplied them with American arms, including warplanes made by Boeing. These have been indiscriminately used by the Saudis in Yemen, to kill civilians as well as military targets. 2,800 civilians have been killed. Among the casualties have been rescue workers and taxi drivers, for example. The places hit have included three hospitals run by Medecins Sans Frontieres, a wedding hall, and a chamber of commerce. The Saudis aren’t targeting just Houthi rebels, but are actively engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Shi’a Muslims.

Clinton pushed very hard for the arms sales, and the reasons weren’t just because the Saudis were America’s allies. Both Boeing and Saudi Arabia made contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and Boeing has also financially supported Hillary’s current presidential campaign. Kulinski states that Hillary’s probably the worst candidate, as she has multiple fronts for corruption. Donors can give directly to her campaign. She also raises money through her Super-PAC. Neither of these are particularly remarkable, as many other politicians have them. Bernie Sanders does not, to his credit, have a Super-PAC. Hillary has got an income through speech-making. He states that Clinton will give a speech to Goldman Sachs telling them they’re oppressed, take $675,000 for doing so, and then, of course, once she gets in the White House, of course she’s going to be returning the favour. She also has another income stream from the Clinton Foundation, which takes not only money from rich corporate donors, but also from other countries and governments around the world. Including what Kulinski describes, entirely justifiably, as ‘the Salafi terror state’.

He makes the point that the Saudis are indeed an Islamic fundamentalist terror state. They are very hard-line, fundamentalist Muslims, who share much of their interpretation of Islam with ISIS. And they have actively funded Islamist terrorism. Private emails leaked from when this deal was finalised in 2011 show Clinton and her supporters hailing the deal as ‘good news’ and ‘not a bad Christmas present’.

Kulinski therefore makes the excellent point that Hillary has no business whatsoever stating that ISIS is the major threat to America, when she has sold arms to Saudi Arabia, itself an oppressive Salafi regime, and which has funded terrorism, including 9/11.

More on the Coeloptere, the Piasecki Airgeep and the Avrocar

December 29, 2015

Last week I posted up a few pieces on three very unusual aircraft, the French VTOL Coeloptere, the Piasecki airgeep – a type of hovercraft designed in the late 1950s, and the flying saucer-like Avrocar. Here are a few more pictures of them I found in The World’s Strangest Aircraft: A Collection of Weird and Wonderful Flying Machines, by Michael Taylor (New York: Barnes & Noble 2000).

The Avrocar

AVrocar 2

Here’s a video of the Avrocar in flight.

The Avrocar wasn’t the first plane that had a circular design. Almost right at the very beginning of aircraft development in the 20th century inventors were experimenting with circular wing designs. In 1911 Cedric Lee and G. Tilghman Richards in Britain brought out a biplane with annular (ring-shaped) wings. This was unsuccessful, but they continued experimenting, and produced a successful glider. This was another biplane, which shared elements of the earlier plane. The upper wing was semi-circular, while the lower wing was ring-shaped. This flew in 1912. Tests in wind tunnels showed that the aircraft with annular wings were more stable, and needed a shorter wingspan than more conventional designs.

The two then produced a monoplane, whose wings were a 22 ft ring. This seated two people, and was driven by a 80 horsepower Gnome engine. This first flew in 1913. Unfortunately, it proved tail heavy, and stalled during flight. Fortunately, the plane and its pilots were saved from death by being caught on nearby telegraph poles. The plane was salvaged, repaired and suitably modified, and returned to the air. It proved very airworthy, and made a series of flights up to the outbreak of the First World War. The two began work building further annular monoplanes, in 1914, but the design was unpopular didn’t catch on.

Lee and Richards’ Annular Wing Monoplane

Annular Wing Monoplane

The Piasecki Airgeep

Piasecki Airgeep 2

The Coeloptere

This is a cutaway diagram of the structure of the French Coeloptere, another annular wing design which unfortunately proved to be unviable.

Coleoptere Drawing

These are only just four of the many weird aircraft that have been designed over the years. They show the immense inventiveness of the aircraft engineers and pioneering inventors, even if some of them proved unworkable in practice.

The AVROcar – the UFO Airplane that Never Made It

December 21, 2015

This is another photo of an experimental plane, like the French Coeloptere, of which great things were confidently predicted, but which was a failure in practise. Its the AVROcar.

AVrocar pic

From what I can remember, this was developed by A.V. Roe Canada for the American airforce. It was disc-shaped, and expected to fly at speeds of over 300 miles an hour at many thousands of feet. In practice, it was a colossal failure. It couldn’t rise more than 8 feet, and it was doing well it did as much as 30 mph.

And obviously, because of its shape, it’s of immense interest to the Ufolks. It’s also the subject of a conspiracy theory. This runs that the plane was really developed to give a false mundane explanation to the UFO phenomenon, and prevent the public realising that they’re alien spacecraft. I’m very sceptical about this theory, but the AVROcar does show that at one point there was an interest in developing ‘flying saucer’ type planes.